Our national asylum seekers shame rolls on unabated

Australia’s asylum seekers policies have been notoriously miserable of late – on an international scale.

I have had serious misgivings about our asylum seekers policies for years, and I am of the view our treatment of refugees is against the spirit of the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees. Our government is playing semantics with international law and morality, while our policies continue to inflict physical and psychological trauma on tens of thousands of asylum seekers, because those policies were deliberately designed to do so, in order to discourage other asylum seekers from aiming for Australia.

June last year I concluded “I can identify shades of Machiavellian thinking in our current government, especially when it comes to their asylum seekers (‘Stop the Boats’) and border protection policies. In their practical implementation these policies are now reflective of the philosophy of ‘the ends justify the means’.”

Our treatment of asylum seekers is without doubt setting the foundations of a future Royal Commission, and some serious hand wringing down the road, once the long-term psychological damage caused to children, women, and other asylum seekers, is truly comprehended.

While I understand the political desire to secure our borders in the current global climate, the methodology used by successive governments is highly questionable and arguably breaches, not just our international legal obligations, but also our moral obligations.

Our political pundits and the media love throwing around the phrase ‘unAustralian’, at the drop of a hat. Personally, I can’t think of anything more ‘unAustralian’, uncivilised and inhumane than:

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Children and women are particularly vulnerable when unrest and wars erupt, and they are forced to flee seeking asylum and safety. Ironically, seeking safety often leads them into circumstances where they suffer further harm – harm that’s often heaped upon them by clueless Western bureaucrats enforcing misguided policies guided by political motives, and cheered on by an uninformed and often intentionally ignorant public.

Abyan letter
Abyan’s letter to lawyer George Newhouse

The Abyan Affair last year was particularly gut-wrenching. Raped in Nauru, a Somali refugee sought medical treatment in Australia. The traumatised young woman was meant to receive an abortion, and related medical and psychological treatment.

While lawyers worked feverishly to bring an interlocutory application before the Federal Court of Australia to prevent the Minister for Immigration, Peter Dutton, from returning her to Nauru before she received treatment, the Minister was busy chartering a RAAF 737 to remove her from the country before the court could intervene.

At the time the Department of Immigration explained Abyan’s removal from Australia with a story of her alleged ‘refusal’ to attend a scheduled medical appointment. The Department elected to interpret that alleged refusal as a blanket refusal to receive any further medical treatment. Her lawyer, George Newhouse, made it clear this was not the case – all she wanted was proper care, including sufficient pre-termination counselling, to enable her to make an informed choice, and to emotionally and mentally prepare for a very difficult choice and procedure. Later revelations by The Guardian, supported by a handwritten letter from Abyan to her lawyer, indicated the Minister and the government may have misled the public, and still have a lot of explanations to give – but most likely they never will.

Due to the secrecy imposed by the government over much of what’s happening to our asylum seekers, it’s not entirely clear what had eventually happened to Abyan.

Sadly, Abyan wasn’t the last refugee woman raped in Nauru and then put into the same untenable position. Now another young African refugee, known only as S99, is battling Australia’s inhumane asylum seeker policies.

The young woman was set upon and raped in the midst of an epileptic seizure. Given her seizure, she was barely semi-conscious during the attack and she is unable to identify her attacker. She is now nine weeks pregnant and desperate to terminate her pregnancy. The circumstances of the rape have not been disputed by the Australian government.

Abortions are illegal on Nauru. But instead of bringing her to Australia for treatment, the government transferred the young woman to Papua New Guinea (PNG) where, according to section 225 of the Criminal Code 1974 (PNG), a person who ‘with intent to procure the miscarriage of a woman … unlawfully administers to [a woman] or causes [a woman] to take any poison or other noxious thing or uses force or any other means’ is subject to fourteen years in prison, and a woman who attempts to ‘procure her own miscarriage’ faces a maximum seven years’ imprisonment. However, PNG policy permits abortions if the mother’s mental or physical health are at risk. S99 is hesitant to have her abortion in PNG:

“I am very concerned about having it in PNG, because I am scared about the level of care because of my epilepsy … and because I could go to jail if it isn’t legal; I want to have a termination in a safe place.”

On 7 April the High Court of Australia intervened with an emergency order which prevents Australia from moving her from PNG to anywhere but to Australia, and prevents the government from doing anything that would cause her pregnancy to be terminated in PNG.

Her case was remitted by the High Court to the Federal Court of Australia, where it will be heard on 28 April.

Given the amount of money and legal resources the Coalition government is throwing at trying to prevent raped asylum seekers receiving appropriate medical care, you would never guess there is a budget crisis unfolding. Meanwhile we don’t have the required resources to process in a timely manner over 28,000 asylum seekers’ applications, but found $6 million to produce a telemovie designed to discourage asylum seekers from trying to make it to Australia.

Watch this space to see how this theatre of cruelty we call our asylum seekers policies will play out …

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